Friday, January 26, 2018

A Celebration of Life

Lullabies in Rhythm on East 56th Street. Photo: JH.
Friday, January 26, 2018. Sunny and cold in New York yesterday. The weatherman forecasts some warmer temps for the weekend. We are now used to milder winters. And it’s about this time of the year that you start thinking about the Spring and the longer days. Just dreamin’, that’s all.

This past Wednesday night the Mabel Mercer Foundation hosted a “Celebration of the Life and the Career of Barbara Carroll.” Yesterday was her 93rd birthday. She died last February after a brief illness. From 1947 to 2016, the lady was performing. Her final appearances were at Birdland.

Barbara Carole Coppersmith was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on January 25, 1925. She started her life on the piano at age 5 when her parents could see that it was a natural talent. They had her take piano lessons to give her basic knowledge of the classical technique. However, it was jazz and pop that took her fancy. Her early idols were Nat Cole, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. When discussing those early days of her life she once told me that she was so enraptured by their talent that she would go around that house lamenting that she wasn’t black. Her mother who was Jewish could not comprehend it.
Carroll with Clyde Lombardi (left) and Chuck Wayne, 1947.
When she was only 15 she organized her own trio and was playing at local dances in the Worcester area. Those were the early days of radio and the beginnings of Swing. All across America people were gathering on their nights off to dance to the live music of young local musicians. She loved it. When she went off to the New England Conservatory of Music after high school, at age 17, she paid for it with money she saved and with money that she continued to earn playing gigs at local dances.
Barbara in 1951.
Barbara came to New York in 1947.  She found there was a decided “prejudice” against female musicians among the professionals.  Nevertheless New York’s nightlife was at its zenith, and the young jazz pianist was converted. There were clubs and nightspots all over town, East, West, Uptown and Down. 52nd Street was known as Jazz Street. All the greats were on the bill. On the block of 52nd between Fifth and Sixth, every doorway led to nightclub. They had been there in volume from the days of Prohibition when they were speakeasies.
Barbara with Dizzy Gillespie, 1957.
A friend helped her get a first booking under the name Bobbie Carroll because a woman piano player was not wanted. So they hired Bobbie Carroll (sight unseen) and were openly disappointed when she showed up. But it was too late to get a replacement. And the show must go on. At that gig she was so impressive that an agent told her to get a trio together and he’d book her into the Downbeat Club where Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra were the main attraction. The Barbara Carroll Trio was born, and they clicked. She also married her bass player, Joe Schulmann.

With Tony Bennett, 1991.
That same year she was booked into Georgie Ault’s Tin Pan Alley where a lot of musicians hung out. Sometimes a young singer from Queens would come in and they struck up a friendship, and he’d sing a couple of songs with her accompanying him. That began a lifelong friendship between Barbara and Tony Bennett.

Throughout the 40s and 50s
Barbara played in clubs in New York, Chicago, Detroit, L.A. and San Francisco. During an engagement at the famous Embers jazz club in New York, she shared the bill with one of her idols, the great Art Tatum. She made appearances in the brand new “Today” show hosted by Dave Garroway. One particular day Billie Holiday was making an appearance and last minute her pianist didn’t show up. Barbara had to substitute and accompany the great Billie Holiday.

In 1952, she was hired for the original cast production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Me and Juliet” playing a rehearsal pianist onstage in the show. By then her career was established and traveled the country with her own jazz trio.

In the late '50s, Joe Schulmann died suddenly in his early 30s of a heart attack. Three later she married Burt Block, an agent. They had daughter Suzanne who has since made Barbara a grandmother.  The '60s through the early '70s were quieter for her on the professional front. Burt Block died in 1986. In 2011, Barbara married for the third time to a longtime fan and friend, a connoisseur of jazz himself, Mark Stroock, who survives her.
Barbara with Mark Stroock in 2012.
She had a warm, serene quality to her demeanor. It was a natural elegance. She was gentle, soft-spoken, and a hearty laugher. Stephen Holden of the New York Times was at the Celebration Wednesday night. He was effusively affectionate in remembering his friend.  He told the crowd that he was “in love” with her, with just everything about her. People remarked about his very favorable reviews of her performances. He confessed that it was impossible to write anything that wasn’t of the highest compliment. Many people in the room shared his feelings about her

Recording for Verve, 1959.
She was a great artist. And she was very human. “She loved gossip,” Holden recalled, “but she never gossiped.” She was one of those women who took it all in and left it at the table -- a friend to many, and the same person with everyone.

I met her in Los Angeles in 1987. She was booked for three weeks at the Westwood Marquis hotel. Coincidentally I had recently discovered a CD set called “An Evening at the Erteguns”  -- an “evening” of cabaret recordings on which Barbara had two cuts. That’s how I discovered her. Then an editor of mine, Lisa Drew, had come out from New York to stay with me while we edited Debbie Reynolds’ autobiography. It turned out that Lisa knew Barbara and was a big fan. We went over to the Westwood Marquis one night and that was that.

Barbara and I kept in touch after that first meeting. She was back again for another engagement the following year. Then when I moved to New York in 1992, she was appearing nightly at the Bemelman’s Bar in the Carlyle Hotel where I often stopped in after my nightly commitments. 11 pm the place was filled. She’d been hired for a two-week gig and stayed for 25 years.
This past Wednesday night’s Celebration was all music, performed by friends and admirers with songs to reflect their feelings about her. All that talent on the stage of the Laurie Beechman Theater (downstairs at 407 West 42nd Street) sang in memory of her with songs as their message. Steve Ross  gave us a jazzy cabaret rendition of the Gershwins’ “Who Cares?” Only this past Monday he played at Birdland, with a tribute to Alan Jay Lerner called “I Remember Him Well.” (“We met at nine. No it was 8. I was on time. No you were late ... ah yes, I remember it well ...). There were ten performances  for Barbara, including Jay Leonhardt’s bass solo of one of Barbara’s favorite tunes. Marilyn Maye closed the evening with her amazing voice singing Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s “On A Clear Day...” (“you can see forever ...”) Barbara was with us every minute of the show.
Jay Leonhard playing "Body and Soul."
Karen Akers singing "With So Little To Be Sure of ..."
Jef Havnar singing "I Fall In Love Too Easily"
Deborah Grace Winer performing a monologue about her friend Barbara.
Billy Stritch playing "Rain Sometimes."
Aaron Weinstein on violin playing "Squeeze Me."
Daryl Sherman singing and playing "Lost in A Crowded Place" with by Barbara with Irving Caeser.
Steve Ross doing "Who Cares ... .what banks fail in yonkers ..."
Sandy Stewart singing "Two For the Road."
KT Sullivan singing "You Are Not My First Love".
And Marilyn Maye "On A Clear Day (You can see for ever)."

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